The crisis of despotic patronage


The Mexican novelist Enrique Serna, whose blistering critique of his country’s cultural elite, Fear of Animals, is published this month, savages the literary and artistic cliques who have for so long enjoyed a free lunch

INTERVIEW with Enrique Serna
REVIEW of Fear of Animals

THE DEMOCRATIC advances of nations often have favourable repercussions in their cultural life, but in Mexico until now the opposite has occurred.

In the year 2000, when popular pressure defeated the state party at the ballot box, many of us believed – perhaps naively – that the fall of the ancien regime augured well for a brilliant future for cultural institutions.

If under a party dictatorship and with restricted freedom of expression the state’s cultural apparatus had been debased and discredited to pathetic extremes, it was to be hoped that the self-styled “government of change”, free of corrupt practices and bureaucratic inertias, would launch a cultural rebirth of great reach.

From the Foreign Relations Ministry, Jorge Castañeda tried to nurture this expectation offering ambassadorships and posts as attaché to film-makers, painters and noted members of the literary republic, asserting clearly that the new government, or at least the department in his charge, held intellectual merit and artistic talent in high esteem.

But very soon, beginning with the naming of Sari Bermúdez in Conaculta – put in place at the whim of Mexico’s First Lady Marta Sahagún after a process of false consulation – we partisans of the new regime understood that the cultural policy of President Vicente Fox had fallen into the hands of inept and narrow-minded people.

The single cultural achievement of the sexenio was the construction of a lavish mega-library that duplicated the functions of UNAM’s Biblioteca Nacional, discriminated against 80 per cent of the reading public and centralised the country’s book archive to the detriment of public libraries in the provinces.

With just half of what the mega-library had cost, the Biblioteca Nacional could have been digitalised, but the functionaries in this field preferred the false ostentation of educational efficiency.

Defrauded in Mexico City

Those who had expected that the PRD government of Mexico City to give a great impulse to culture were also left defrauded. The city’s mayor, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, not only assiged a stingy budget to the capital’s Institute of Culture, but dismantled the successful network of book clubs formed with great effort during the governments of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas and Rosario Robles.

For decades, alternative singers and composers had pushed forward, with varying artistic fortunes, a movement of cultural resistance that AMLO [López Obrador] betrayed when he handed over the city’s Zocalo to showbusiness. And to cap it all, right in the middle of the presidential campaign, the deputies of the PRD approved en bloc the new Radio and Television law that granted Televisa and TV Azteca the lion’s share of the digitalisation of frequencies, perpetuating their concessions for several decades.

AMLO has sought to evade his responsibility in this fiddle, claiming that the PRD deputies acted on their own behalf but, in private, a PRD deputy confessed to me with some embarrassment that his bloc had followed direct instructions from the Big Fish [López Obrador] to Pablo Gómez [PRD president] just like in the golden age of the PRI.

In the face of the cultural crimes committed by alternating governments, an important sector of the intellectual and artistic community has fallen into the trap of remembering with nostalgia the despotic patronage of the old corporatist regime.

“We were better off with the PRI,” is a comment that I frequently hear in the mouths of theatre directors, musicians, writers, sculptors and ballet dancers who had more and better breaks during the years of the PRI’s perfect dictatorship, and now are confronted by the hostile indifference of the new PAN and PRD officials who no longer consider them a political clientele worth coveting.

No one can deny that the PRI governments, like thos despotic Italians of the Renaissance, saw in culture a sign of grandeur and managed to form cultural promoters of high calibre. If we compare the intellectual solvency and the organisational capacity of Rafael Tovar y de Teresa with that of Sari Bermúdez or Enrique Semo, there is no doubt that Mexican society has lost out from the new batch of officials.

But the fact that the PRI would have had better cadres for managing the cultural departments must not make us forget that their primordial political function was covering the corruption of the ruling family with the tinsel of art.

One example among a thousand of this prestigious cover up is the splendour that the cultural life of Morelos achieved under the rule of Jorge Carrillo Olea, when Mercedes Iturbe was managing the Morelos Institute of Culture. During my eight years living in Cuernavaca, I have been able to verify that the state’s cultural community sighs when remembering this golden age. Never before was there so much money for the diffusion of the arts, so many grants for creative people, so many concerts and exhibitions planned with intelligence and good taste. Attracted by this state munificence, numerous literati, theatre directors, and artists and sculptors emigrated to Cuernavaca or to Tepoztlán to run workshops or direct groups of actors.

All that disfigured that tropical Arcadia was a small, hairy wart: the bountiful patron sharing money out in abundance was allegedly turning a blind eye to a gang of kidnappers run by his very own chief of police and was accused of granting protection to the narco Amado Carrillo, the Lord of the Skies, who filled the streets of Cuernavaca with hired killers. [Editor’s note: Jorge Carrillo Olea strongly denied any wrongdoing. He took leave of absence as governor of Morelos in 1998 and was later impeached after senior members of his administration were linked to kidnappers. In 2003, he was acquitted by prosecutors of charges of dereliction of his duty stemming from the allegation that he had allowed kidnap gangs to run free in the state.]

For sure Señora Iturbe and her team were ignorant of what was going on in the vaults of power, but public opinion in the state had more than enough motive to distrust a guild that, through frivolity or blindness, imitated the conduct of ostriches, with their heads buried in the payroll, whilst the bullets whistled past them and bodies in car boots appeared every morning.

Illusory island of purity

The case of Morelos is not an exception. For decades, the governments of the PRI managed to make society believe that the state’s cultural apparatus was an island of purity in the middle of the sewer. Despite the evident putrefaction that reined in the police agencies, among the attorney generals, in the ministries where the political and economic power was concentrated, public opinion gave the benefit of the doubt to the institutions of culture because of the nobility of their aims. The cosmetic operation was a ringing success because the intellectual and artistic community itself, including its most conspicuous opinion formers, believed that they occupied an uncontaminated niche within the bureaucatic pyramid, or made as if they believed it knowing full well that the cultural apparatus also stank. While the country enjoyed economic growth and an educational system that was more or less effective, the organic cultural elite could enjoy its clientelistic privileges without a sense of guilt. But beginning with the devaluation of 1982, when economic stagnation froze social mobility and cuts in public spending, combined with the corruption in the teachers’ union, fatally wounded the educational sector, the little parastatal artistic world and the intellectuals yoked to the budget could not now feel so comfortable in their tarnished Eden.

With the audience for the arts reduced to a minimum and the majority of the population excluded from reading, the state’s cultural apparatus had been converted into the cherry on a non-existent cake.

Since then, the accomodating attitude of the guild was converted into open complicity with power. In his desire to win sympathy after the electoral fraud of 88, Salinas de Gortari charged Víctor Flores Olea with a vast programme of massive co-option of intellectuals and artists which took on an institutional form with the creation of FONCA. The greater the country’s educational crisis, the greater the number of sinecures, grants and jobs the usurper shared out among his spoiled artists and writers. The margin of freedom to criticise the government, that in other times had been very narrow for anyone receiving money from the treasury, was widened to give the beneficiaries the opportunity to dissent without their source of income being threatened. It is very symptomatic that some of the most fierce critics of Salinas maintained magnificent relationships with his cultural officials: that was the way the leader of the gang, who put up with the poodle scratching one hand while he was feeding it with the other, tolerated things.

In this period there were intellectuals who even managed to chalk up three or four positions at the same time, alongside their chunky grants as creative or emeritus artists. It is natural that now, when the clientelistic relationship between power and the cultural community has been broken asunder, they are demanding in a veiled way a return to the past. But after revealing their rapacity so shamelessly, the cultural family – save for a few honourable exceptions – has lost credibility within society and among the new rulers, who justifiably distrust their demands. Such that when a film-maker pampered by IMCINE asks between sobs for a larger budget to continue taking his cinemtic rubbish to international festivals, or a theatre director inflated with self-pride demands millions to correct Calderón de la Barca’s work in an experiment of infamous quality that only six or seven spectators will watch, those in charge of public spending have the right to think that these self-sacrificing paladins of culture are in fact only interested in financing their own careers at the cost of the treasury. And in a country with 40 million poor people, that urgently requires schools, hospitals and networks of drinking water, proposing such garbage with public money is equivalent to committing fraud against the nation.

If the cultural community wants to make itself heard and respected by the governments of the new era, it should ask the state to invest more in education and in the creation of a public for the arts, instead of begging for funds to sustain so many artistic and literary dinosaurs who have for years been encrusted in the budget.

The reluctance of the new governments to practise despotic patronage should make all the worthy artists and intellectuals happy, because now it is more feasible for the state’s cultural policy to govern according to criteria of quality.

Mexico is an over-patriotic country with a strong propensity to self-deprecation, a schizoid contradiction that television programming reinforces day by day by displaying the worst of our idiosyncrasy.

It is urgent that we renovate our cinema, popular music, soap opera and theatre, so that our people can look at themselves in a clear mirror. But, up until now, the governments of the PAN and PRD have assigned culture a decorative function, while leaving the television in the hands of an uncouth oligarchy that knows only how to make money by stupefying the people. If they really want to correct errors in this field, they must eradicate once and for all clientelism in their relations with the divine caste of culture, strengthen channels 11 and 22 so that they compete on a par with commercial broadcasters, recuperate the 12 per cent of state time on the private channels to correct the havoc caused by marketing, and hand over the direction of the cultural apparatus to high-quality officials who have the authority to grant or deny support.

If they fail to, our cortesan pleiad will continue having good reasons to document their personal reactionary sadness.

(Translated by Gavin O’Toole)

INTERVIEW with Enrique Serna
REVIEW of Fear of Animals